Dear White Liberal Allies of the Marginalized: Thanks for Acknowledging your Privilege, But…

This one will be a difficult one. I’ve got a bone to pick, but I must pick it in a manner that does not alienate our allies and brethren in social justice, but rather politely asks that you let us speak. Before I proceed, this piece is aimed at addressing a particular brand of liberal hypocrisy prevalent in many movements for social justice, and not an attack against white people (I know some one will inevitably cry reverse racism within ten seconds of reading this title).  Now that we got that out of the way, let me start from the beginning. The KONY 2012 debacle is where my impending critique began to take form. The sensationalist KONY 2012 calamity personified the neo-colonist, paternalistic relationship the Western has had, and continues to have with marginalized peoples; And through the power of social media, the masses were beckoned to respond, critique, and analyze what all this meant in a globalized, post-social media world. We discussed the implications of ‘the White Saviour’, paradigm, dissected ‘white privilege’, chastised Invisible Children, and promises were made to honor indigenous voices. The marginalized masses shouted, ‘let us speak’, and but I don’t think many of you were listening. Here’s where I make enemies, and begin to formulate my misgivings about our recent and continuing conversations surrounding ideas of ‘white privilege’, ‘racial justice’,  ‘representation’, and indigenous ownership about the narratives of the marginalized.

I must say, it’s wonderful to witness 1st world, white middle class citizens acknowledging their privilege, and expressing solidarity with the struggle against western hegemony and racial inequality, both serving as paradigms that have not only underdeveloped nations and peoples, but silenced non-hegemonic voices. This is a great thing. As they say, acknowledgement is the first step.I understand social justice aims call for justice seeking persons to acknowledge their particular privileges so we can collectively address these inequities.  But there’s a problem. In acknowledging their ‘white privilege’, many are silencing sub-altern voices by now acting as the vanguards of indigenous experiences, and spaces. I’ve heard more non-Africans pontificate about the need for Ugandan voices in the Kony 2012 episode than actual Ugandans. Is it enough to just acknowledge your privilege, while you continue to occupy spaces of privilege? Am I the only one rolling their eyes at the sight of white liberals writing articles in left leaning publications about the importance of acknowledging and uplifting/reporting marginalized voices and stories? If you’re genuine about rejecting your privilege, then provide a platform for a non-hegemonic voice, and actively work against this system that rewards you for being white, and undermines others. I know this sounds crazy, but I have this idea that those affected by colonialism and racial injustice are better suited to critique it than you. Pretty radical, I know. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to partake in this conversation, but merely asking that you step aside, and not take the dominant role, especially when your dominance is the subject of inquiry. I almost feel like our concerns and demands for racial and economic justice are being satirized by the consciously privileged. It’s almost become fashionable to acknowledge one’s position of privilege while simultaneously benefiting from the same oppressive paradigms that bestowed you with spoils that come with your first world, white liberal middle class existence.

If you truly acknowledge your privilege and find flaw in the status quo, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to have to stop benefiting from those privileges (This will mean 90 percent of the writers, journalists, and commentators ultra-left publications would need to step down, and make way for more melanin-enriched faces). If you identify as a liberal, social justice loving white person, and happen to occupy media spaces that shun sub-altern voices, then you sir/madam, are implicit and collaborator to the same system you actively work to distance yourself from. You have no business commenting on the affairs of the Marginalized in regards to questions of representation if you’re not, wait for it, a Marginalized person.  I think this is a fair demand. We all have a responsibility to not only acknowledge our privilege, but also actively work to reverse this paradigm. For example, I’m a 1st worlder, a Canadian, and a member of the Somali diaspora, and as such, I’m mindful of this unique position of power my passport allocates yours truly. My passport provides me with the opportunity to seek ngo, development industry type employment on the continent and demand a higher salary than a local, in say, Somalia. So what do I do? I don’t apply for those jobs. Drastic I know. But I believe there are locals far more equipped and qualified than I – in manners pertaining to development, and social justice on the ground; And my acknowledgement of my privilege is meaningless if I fail to reject the oppressive system that rewards me for my privilege. I’m asking you to do the same, or shut up about your allegiance to the social justice aims of the ‘Other’.  This my way of saying, please step aside, and let us do the talking in matters that pertain to yours truly.  If not, atleast stop your disingenuous acknowledgement of your privilege, and proudly claim, ‘man it’s good to be white’. I’ll respect you for it.


19 thoughts on “Dear White Liberal Allies of the Marginalized: Thanks for Acknowledging your Privilege, But…

  1. Yup. Sadly, Sartre and Fanon were making eerily similar observations in 1960. Too bad we haven’t gotten over it. It’s a good post – I can’t say I disagree. What makes it so strong, I think, aside from its substance, is the combination of frustration and passion on the one hand, but respect and tact on the other. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m studying anthropology and politics at the moment, and have been reading a lot of Clifford Geertz. I came across this quote, which seems apt: “‘If speaking *for* someone else seems to be a mysterious process,’ Stanley Cavell has remarked, ‘that may be because speaking *to* someone does not seem mysterious enough.’” In other words, we don’t dissect the act of talking to each other (to the extent we do) enough.

  3. Very good post, and points to some of the thoughts that cross my mind, when as a white, American journalist (though I did not grow up middle-class), I produce my reports or comment on the lack of African voices. The following are honest and genuine questions and comments in an effort to converse, not argue (just to be clear as Internet writing loses tone): I love, love, love being a journalist. I recognize I was given certain ‘easier roads’ I guess one could say, but also I have worked very hard to be a journalist – studying, long hours, just plain years on the job, etc. I take my job seriously and try to be respectful and treat all subjects with dignity and honesty (everyone from American politicians to African politicians to man-on-the-street interviews in Senegal). I report on a lot of things, and a journalist can’t possibly have had first-hand personal experience with every single issue they cover. When you say: “You have no business commenting on the affairs of the Marginalized in regards to questions of representation if you’re not, wait for it, a Marginalized person.” I understand what you are saying and want to agree, but at the same time, following this, does a ‘marginalized person’ not to get to report on someone in a position of power? Can they not critique abuse of power, because they have no idea what it’s like to have power? And should we apply to this to every issue, every topic? I bring this up not to disagree, but because I try my best as a journalist to tell stories with the voices of those in the story, and this post seems to be asking me to ‘step aside’ and not to do that. Is there not room for both at some level? I completely agree that there is a need for more African journalists reporting on a global stage about African issues, but does this mean that I as an American cannot do that anymore?

    • “…does a ‘marginalized person’ not to get to report on someone in a position of power?”

      Yep, that’s false equivalency. Those placed in the periphery can speak on issues of power and privilege precisely because they have been marginalized by that very group. Anyone can comment on power because that is what controls us. Those with power and privilege cannot speak on behalf of the subaltern because they don’t possess their perspective and thus historically and consistently have expressed a reflection of their own condescending paternalistic agenda rather than accurate reflection of the concerns of the subaltern.

      I’ll add something that the author did not (and I believe should have addressed). If you truly want to help on issues of development or whatever, you can work ALONGSIDE marginalized persons, a true partnership, while cognizant of race, history and contemporary inequities.

  4. “Colonization is not satisfied with holding a group and emptying the natives brains of all form and content, by a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts disfigure and destroys it.” – Franzt Fanon

    And in this sense much frank talk on these issues is needed as Steve Biko understood too : “the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the minds of the opressed.” Consequently, Biko promulgated the revolutionary exigency of wrting darn near well what he liked in the face of the brutal system of apartheid. one key problem with ‘white privilege’ is that it keeps transformimg itself into an angel of light.The deluge of talk (post KONY 2012), about the hypocrisy of white privilege, and who represents the subaltern, rather than listens to what they might have to say in the development world, has long expired its sell by date. Perhaps the real problematique is the contagion that years of this devilry has caused for those recipients who have inculcated and internalised what has now become a normative power dynamic between those technical experts in the global South and their ‘poor’ beneficiaries in the global North. In a sector that seems to experience prolific bouts of collective professional amnesia about the that fact, prior to KONY 2012 and the miserable faux pas of the simplistic Invisible Children [IC] narrative, a similar narrative prevailed within developmentalist discourse. As it goes, go back and listen to Jason Russell. Remarkably the guy has an-depth understanding of cross-cultural issues he is able to articulate intellectually, and with a clarity of purpose in relation to his understanding of the people of Uganda than most do in the field concerning faith based development work. I know this I have taught ‘missiology’ to Christian development workers. It is a genuine and heartfelt understanding, he did not engage in the film (see link below). For example, he understood the theoretical framework and praxis of ‘missiology’, which rather similar to anthropological conceptulisations of “going native” (Clifford Geertz), meant immersing oneself in the culture of the people, which Jason was able to cogently demonstrate he had done. He understood the spiritual perspectives of the people of Northern Uganda in a way most Development professionals would balk at – that the Ugandans probably had a more meaningful and deeper grasp of Christianity than they [IC] as materialistic Westerners. Contrary to a great deal of chaff written about Jason’s Christian beliefs, they were not ‘secretive’ as such, but rather incarnational’. Somewhere along the line Jason’s materialistic proclivities sabotaged the potential of a project that many like Jason believed could have been salt and light to a a mostly moribund world. But back to the contagion.The problem now, is not so much “white privilege” accompanied by a dose of white guilt per se, but rather vigilance of its by-product the contagion – internalised colonialism, so aptly depicted in Frantz Fanon’s ‘Black Skins White Masks’.The intellectual origin of this theory was the written and spoken condemnation of European colonialism and the putting forward of an anti-colonial praxis by Kwame Nkrumah, and most influentially, Frantz Fanon. Early proponents of this theoretical standpoint in the United States such as Malcolm X and Kwame Turé, were inspired by anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the devloping World, and their victories in Ghana, Cuba and Algeria. As Bohmer (1998) writes: “They decided that the critique of colonialism and neo-colonialism was the most suitable one for understanding the oppression of blacks and other people of color in the United States. They found relevant the analysis of the domination of oppressed people based on the violence of the colonizer, the exploitation of their land, labor and natural resources, and the systematic attempt to destroy the culture of non-European people in the search for profits.” This analytical framework remains extremely relevant in understanding Europes relation to the West, not only in terms of how Europe Under-developed Africa, as Walter Rodney has so eloquently explained, but also how she continues to under develop Africa in service of the project of development, an activity contemporary developmental theorist popularly refer to as the White Man’s Burdens.E

  5. Pingback: Hassan: Hat Tip to a Local Champion « Usalama

  6. I think it’s always easier finding solutions for other people, it’s more difficult dealing with own mistakes. As a whiteborn person I don’t feel like saying God I’m so happy to be white and privileged. I grew up feeling bad about having enough to eat. I totally agreed that everyone have to deal with their own problems but it’s not easy to remain silent when discovering injustice and it’s easy to feel frustrated. Oil companies have been going on for something like 30 or 40 years destroying the Niger Delta. I feel I have the right to complain about this and i think every white and black journalist that writes and give information about the disaster created is doing a good job. Maybe as white people we cannot deal with Kony. Each country needs information to be democratic and we also need to dialogue.

    • I definitely agree Torunn, as global citizens we all have a responsibility to act as a unit against agents of oppression everywhere. I would never suggest that white people stop caring about world issues. That’s ludicrous and unproductive. I’m drawing attention to how a subgroup of privilege-acknowledging liberals continue to disenfranchise marginalized voices, and insist on speaking for us. My aim is not to indict activists who’ve dedicated their lives to curbing injustices everywhere uplifting. Hats off to those who encourage local voices and are mindful of their privilege when engaging with the marginalized. Those people are my heroes, and would never belittle their efforts.

      • I don’t ever want to speak in a way that marginalizes the voices of the oppressed. On the other hand, I feel that the privileged have power and voice in our society that the marginalized do not have; thus, we have a responsibility to speak out. Is that clear as mud? You bring up an excellent point, though, one that is overlooked by us white liberals.

  7. Can I be extremely controversial here and say that if, as Westerners/whites, it is not right for us to speak for those in developing countries (which I 100% agree with) and that some people have selfish motives for helping (I personally disagree somewhat, I think it’s usually ‘misguided’ not ‘selfish’), then I feel a bit upset that so many African commentators are so freely telling Westerns how we should feel – that we shouldn’t be offended by these generalisations, that you know our motivations for helping. Does that not seem a little unfair to you? I am hurt by the generalisations to be honest. I’ve read SO many articles of late about how bad white people are. And it’s always the word white used. Can you see how that is upsetting? It’s like making a sweeping generalisation like “African-Americans are gangsters” and then expecting African-Americans not be offended when you follow it up with “but of course if you’re not a gangster disregard that statement.”

    I wrote a blog post about it if you’re interested, it’s here:

    • Thanks Geordie for stopping by and appreciate the feedback. I think you’re missing the point of this blog, as the aim is not to indict white people but rather ask that people of privilege be mindful of how that privilege manifests itself. A bigger theme here is issues of representation, reclaiming colonized spaces, and promoting the voice of the marginalized. I don’t understand why any of this would hurt your feelings unless you have issues with being confronted about your privilege. First, do you acknowledge white privilege? Second, what do you mean by ‘helping them?’. Whose them? and what are you doing to exactly help? what does ‘helping?’ mean. Your language is nuanced with a paternalistic and an almost patronizing tone, and that’s exactly whats being unpackaged here.Africans do not need your ‘help’. If you acknowledge that there are injustices occurring in the world where the 1st world is complicit in these injustices, then there is a responsibility to act as allies with the citizens of those geographic spaces so one may begin to address the inherited consequences of colonialism, racism, capitalism, and patriarch. That’s your responsibility as a privileged person occupying privileged spaces. Let’s be mindful of language like ‘help them’.

      Lastly, there’s nothing offensive about being white. No one has suggested that because one is white, then one is innately X,Y,Z. I think you’re uncomfortable with some of the critiques your reading, and it’s natural to feel conflicted about what this all means. Many people think ‘I’m a good person, I have friends who aren’t white, I donate to Africa, why is everyone critiquing my existence?’. That feeling is perfectly fine, but you’re honest about social justice, equality, and understanding, then you’re gonna have to move on from that emotion, and ask hard questions about what this all means. Starting with ‘I’m white, and this particular racial construct comes equip with certain luxuries. now what do i do about it’.

      Checking out your blog post now, and look forward to your future comments.

      • Hi, thanks so much for your response, much appreciated. I hope I can clarify for you.

        Just for ease of explanation’s sake, let me separate the two issues – firstly about the comments relating to race and then secondly about the issues relating to paternalism etc.

        So firstly, “race” (for lack of a better word).

        I don’t think I did miss the point of your blog, but I do agree that it wasn’t what my comment was focusing on. I totally accept that 99% of the people who use the term ‘white saviour’ are not actually referring to the whiteness of one’s skin, but a mentality that definitely does exist in some people. What I’m commenting on is on how the kind of language used makes me personally feel. The generalisation can be really hurtful. I suppose it’s hard to explain because it’s a feeling – but how does it make you feel when people imply Africans are helpless or incapable? Even if you know, and many others know, that those generalisations are not aimed at you specifically, or do not really reflect on you as a person, it is still hurtful. And when I feel hurt, like I’ve been grouped a certain way, and that this is a factor in how people will perceive me and my reasons for ‘helping’ (I will come back to what I mean by this shortly), it makes me less inclined to want to listen.

        Basically – in my opinion, offensiveness does not come from the speaker’s intention. It comes from their words, and how they make the person on the receiving end feel. As I said before, the person who says ‘the black American gang culture’ may well not mean it offensively, in fact they may have very good intentions. But it is how it makes the person on the receiving end feel. That’s how I think about the phrase ‘white saviour’.

        Perhaps you could answer this for me – why use the term ‘white’ rather than ‘Western’?

        Now for the second, more complex I suppose, issue of the ideology I guess.

        I think the example of how you feel I use a paternalistic tone really illustrates my frustration. When I say “help”, I mean basically try to contribute to the efforts to eradicate global poverty. I choose ‘help’ deliberately because for me, ‘help’ means working together equally. As opposed to say, ‘charity’ which implies some kind of paternalism. But perhaps for you it has different connotations – what word would you prefer me to use?

        At no point anywhere in my writing do I mention even slightly that I don’t think African people are capable of creating change. Actually, perhaps I should have prefaced this with a disclaimer – I think in most situations they are exactly the ones who can and do create change! It’s just that in some circumstances, the money I have can ‘help’ African changemakers who lack the initial funding etc to do so. That’s not a criticism, or something that I look down on people for, it’s just a fact.

        And here’s where I suppose the two separate areas link up to a degree – so I suppose in a way you’re implying that at least to a certain degree I do have a bit of ‘white saviour complex’. And I do agree with you that it’s incredibly hard for me to really understand the perspective of people living in developing countries, no matter how hard I try. Yep, sometimes I will probably stuff up – maybe like using a word like ‘help’ which to me construes one thing but to you another. But honestly I do try as hard as I can.

        The projects I ‘help’ financially are – The Ruiru Feeding Project which was set up by my Kenyan friend in her home town. The Spark* project in PNG which, though set up by an Australian, identifies & funds projects that were established by Papua New Guineans. The Strengthening Cambodian Communities project, that was set up by a Cambodian man in his own community in partnership with an Australian woman. Kiva. Actually following reading a lot from Dambisa Moyo and other twitter people I follow, I left my position with an Australian NGO because I felt there was no voice from the people we were ‘helping’ and that it was overly paternalistic.

        So I suppose that’s why, when I hear comments like yours, I feel so disheartened. It often feels like everywhere I look and no matter how hard I try someone is telling me I’m doing the wrong thing. Perhaps it’s better I did nothing at all, I’m really not sure, because all I know is that I feel hurt and attacked, and apparently those in developing countries feel patronised and like I’m missing the mark, so what’s the point?

        Sorry if this comment is long and nonsensical. I’m not a writer and I tried to speak honestly and from my heart so who knows how it reads! I know that’s not what you want, but the truth is the world isn’t all about rationality and fact. Some of it is emotion, and we need to be mindful of that.

  8. Wouldn’t it better a “story” if both privileged’s and marginalized’s views/voices share the telling it?Wouldn’t it better if both privileged and marginalized are able to find equal ways to work together to challenge power dynamics?
    Wouldn’t it better if instead of stepping aside those privileged open spaces for marginalized to join in? I mean what about sharing the privilege? what about if a privileged challenges the same power system that privileges him/her by opening spaces to others?

  9. I would have taken offense in your post if the last paragraph had been missing. Privilege is not only associated with race but with many other factors as well. And sometimes, privilege will be a prerequisite for certain types on involvement. You wouldn’t be writing a blog without the basic privileges of having learnt how to write and having access to the internet.

    I believe that it isn’t necessariyl wrong to exercise privilege even when you are aware of it. We will never all be equal, neither between races nor within one race. Privilege is part of life and will always be. But you need to be careful in how you exercise your privilege which is why I do not disagree with you more strongly.

    I believe the legitimate use of privilege is if it is aimed at its removal. If I own a lot more than others, I should use my possessions to reduce the gap and e.g. provide employment for those who need it. The same with racial privilege. The only way it should be used is to make sure that one generation down the track there is less of it. What you suggest might be part of that (e.g. avoiding NGO work that perpetuates the status quo) but I think it’s much more an attitude problem. Strangely quite different from Asia, most people still see Africa as a continent of savages, a continent which will never live without help because it is inhabited by savages. Once people see that Africa is inhabited by humans with the same strengths and weaknesses, the same hopes and dreams, the same capabilities and short-comings as anywhere else, then the white race will really have learnt to forget about its privilege (at least in racial terms).

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